Human-Nature

Our relationship with the natural world.

Is Animal Research Acceptable?

Research perpetrates horrible acts on animals under the auspices of science.

Some of my best friends are researchers. I'm one myself. So, yeah, this is a tough one to write. But I don't do animal research like this.

The New York Times just featured an article that described current research that uses monkeys to study obesity. It's more of the same. We perpetrate horrible acts on our animal kin under the auspices of science. What's worse, the article makes it all seem so normal.

Here's what's going on. Some researchers at the Oregon National Primate Research Center get monkeys very fat. The researchers feed them huge amounts of food, and keep them in cages without exercise for months and even years at a time. See the photo associated with this post. Many of the monkeys then get many of the diseases that fat people get, such as diabetes, and clogged arteries. The researchers study the diseases, and mechanisms for weight gain and weight loss. To that end, the researchers sometimes "kill some of the monkeys to examine their brains and pancreases."

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What have they found? According to the New York Times article, they "found something ...that could be important for people - that eating a healthy diet during pregnancy reduced troubles in the offspring."

My response? They got to be kidding. They're telling us that it's good for the kids if a woman eats a healthy diet when pregnant. Is that new information to you? Or to anyone you know? They are ruining the lives of deeply feeling, highly social and intelligent, gorgeous primates so that they can tell us this? That's hard to accept.

Yeah, yeah, I know the researchers are learning other things about diabetes and so forth. But there's a deep contradiction in their research program. On the one hand, they are using these animals "because they resemble humans much more than laboratory rats do." But they don't recognize that that "resemblance" - that's a tricky word right there, because it makes it seem like monkeys are real enough to conduct research on but not really real - that resemblance brings with it the capacity for the animal to engage deeply in social life with their kin, and with us, and us with them.

In commenting on this New York Times article, Dr. Patricia Hasbach, a psychotherapist in Eugene, Oregon, writes: "We humans seem to have a deep pathology - a blindness - to the Other. I suspect it has something to do with our belief that we are the only species made ‘in God's image.'"

The thing here is that we do things culturally and they can be wrong, and they can be sick, but they are so normalized that we all just sit around and think, "Well, that's the way the world works, I guess it must be normal." Craig Chalquist brings this perspective to his critique of narrow-minded science, especially when it operates without a moral compass. He writes (in Ecopsychology, 1(2), 2009): "Had today's social and environmental scientists been at work during the late Roman Empire, a period so often compared to our own, the journals of the time would have bulged with papers like, ‘Effects of Positive Thinking on Frontier Combat Outcomes,' or ‘Seating Placement and Coliseum Cheering Decibel Levels,' interspersed with ads for nutritional supplements for gladiators" (p. 6). He's got that

A research monkey in captivity at twice its normal weight
A research monkey in captivity at twice its normal weight
New York Times
right. Substitute warriors and athletes for gladiators. We're writing those papers today.

The New York Times article told it straight, as if you could change horror into non-horror by simply calling it important science. You can't.

As a culture, how do we wake up? We've done it before. Not so long ago, we as a culture accepted slavery. Not so long ago, women didn't have the right to vote. Not so long ago, we used to conduct these sort of medical experiments on black people, as Nazis conducted them on Jews. All of that seems hard to believe. It seems out of a Kafka world of absurdity. But we changed. We changed for the better. And we can and must do better still.

Peter H. Kahn, Jr. is Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington and the author of Technological Nature: Adaptation and the Future of Human Life.

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